The hardening conventional wisdom is that if President Obama fails to convince Congress to authorize a military strike in Syria, he is done — a lame-duck president less than a year after his reelection. But that line of thinking seems to rest on the idea that his agenda wasn't already doomed.
"Obama Shrinking Second-Term Hastened by Syria Opposition," Bloomberg News declared on Monday. "The outcome [on Syria] will help decide the fate of his second-term agenda," Politico reports. "The White House faces the strong possibility of a defeat over Syria that could seriously damage the president for the rest of his tenure," the Los Angeles Times reports. On Fox & Friends on Monday morning, host Steve Doocy, citing Politico, said, "Apparently behind the scenes, the last ditch effort to try to get these Congressional Democrats on board, even though they're squarely against the president, is to say, 'You know what? If this does not pass, his agenda is doomed. Anything you want to get passed is doomed.'"
Doocy didn't sound too upset by this possibility. He suggested going with Obama on Syria might be as dangerous to Democrats in Congress as voting for Obamacare in 2010, just before they lost their majority in the midterm elections. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, who supports a strike in Syria, fears Republicans might be intoxicated by the idea that voting down Syria is voting down Obama's domestic agenda:
The fact is that Obama is the only president we have. We can’t abdicate our position in the world for the next three years. So Republicans will have to resist the temptation to weaken him when the cost is weakening the country.
There are some important differences between now and the example Doocy cited, the 2010 vote for Obamacare. The Syria vote would anger Democrats' constituents not by going too far left, but by going too far right. Democrats wouldn't need to vote against other liberal policies just to prove they weren't socialists marching in lockstep with the president. The Congressional Black Caucus might not vote for a strike in Syria, but its members are not going to suddenly find bills to repeal Obamacare appealing.
So is Obama's agenda really doomed? The real question is whether Obama's agenda is more doomed than it was already. Gun control failed long before the Syria controversy — despite a massacre in a kindergarten. (Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was "almost certain" the Senate would "revisit that issue" sometime in 2014, so perhaps after Syria, that faint hope of passing gun laws is now even more faint.) Likewise, this spring, Obama's speeches about pre-kindergarten education and ending the sequester failed to convince congressional Republicans. The president has already been relying on executive authority to change policy on immigration, marijuana, drug sentencing, gay rights, health care, and a college ranking system.
The policy most likely to suffer is immigration reform, legislation whose fate looked bleak in the early summer anyway. An immigration overhaul will probably be delayed into 2017, Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei reported last week. Congressional aides had previously guessed it would be delayed until 2015 — just before the next presidential campaign gets going.
In a hearing last week, Rep. Joe Wilson wondered if Syria was just one big distraction from the issues that will do real damage to the Obama agenda:
With the president’s redline, why was there no call for military response in April? Was it delayed to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of Obamacare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration or the upcoming debt limit vote?
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said a vote on Syria will come "in the next two weeks." Right now, it doesn't look good for Obama. "We’re not counting for the conference, but some of us are keeping tallies, and it’s looking horrible," a House GOP source tells The National Review's Robert Costa. "I’d say 30 to 40 Republicans, at most, are privately supportive."
But maybe failure was the point all along! That is what The Washington Post's Ezra Klein suggested in jest last week, and what Norman Podhoretz floats sincerely on Monday in The Wall Street Journal. Podhoretz says we're witnessing the swift disintegration of a global power not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He writes:
Yet if this is indeed the pass to which Mr. Obama has led us—and I think it is—let me suggest that it signifies not how incompetent and amateurish the president is, but how skillful. His foreign policy, far from a dismal failure, is a brilliant success as measured by what he intended all along to accomplish. The accomplishment would not have been possible if the intention had been too obvious. The skill lies in how effectively he has used rhetorical tricks to disguise it.
A failed Syria vote would weaken the country — which is exactly what what Obama's real agenda has always secretly been! Podhoretz goes on:
The key to understanding what Mr. Obama has pulled off is the astonishing statement he made in the week before being elected president: "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." To those of us who took this declaration seriously, it meant that Mr. Obama really was the left-wing radical he seemed to be, given his associations with the likes of the anti-American preacher Jeremiah Wright and the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers, not to mention the intellectual influence over him of Saul Alinsky, the original "community organizer."
This might be a better pitch to Republicans skeptical of a strike than the one Kristol came up with. Don't defeat Obama on the Syria vote — it's the only way to defeat Obama.